Interesting story in the BBC on how American beer, once derided in the world’s cultures that take beer seriously, has suddenly become fashionable. America’s craft breweries have spawned international fans and imitators, though also new controversies among the purists.
Once widely mocked, US beer is now popular globally with hipsters and connoisseurs alike. Why is the world buying in to the American brewing revolution?
Not so very long ago, American beer was a joke. And a weak one at that.
To international tastebuds, it meant bottled lagers like Budweiser, Miller or Coors – commonly regarded by self-respecting drinkers as bland, corporate and lacking in credibility.
An explosion in independently-run microbreweries producing lovingly-created, strong, pungent, flavour-rich ales has transformed the reputation of the product.
But it is not only traditional aficionados of ale who have been won over by this American revolution.
Somehow, beer from the United States has become not just widely respected, but achingly fashionable.
Visit a chrome-surfaced bar in London, Stockholm or Amsterdam and you’re likely to find Brooklyn Lager, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale or Odell’s porter on tap.
All are craft beers – a catch-all term defined by the American Brewers Association as the product of “small, independent and traditional” producers.
“There’s a hipster cachet to it,” says Melissa Cole, ale expert and author of Let Me Tell You About Beer. “Craft beer is seen as sexy right now, there’s no doubt about it.”
Bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn American bar culture is being exported around the world
According to the Brewers Association, exports of US craft beer rose by 72% in 2012, with Canada, the UK and Sweden making up the largest international markets.
Today the US boasts more than 2,000 breweries – up from barely 50 in 1980.
It’s a remarkable turnaround for a nation whose beer was recently widely written off by consumers around the world as insufferably naff.
“Five or six years ago, if you were abroad and said you were an American brewer people would look the other way – they thought it was all yellow, fizzy water like Budweiser, Miller and Coors,” says Jim Caruso, CEO of Flying Dog, an award-winning microbrewery in Frederick, Maryland.
Known for their potent, hoppy flavours and high alcohol percentages, and often comprising unusual ingredients like chilli and chocolate, American craft beers have inspired a host of imitators, especially in the UK.
British firms like Darkstar, Meantime and Marble have all manufactured drinks influenced more by California and Colorado than Cornwall or Coventry.
These do not always qualify as “real ales” – a term popularised by British beer lovers when they launched the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) a generation ago in rebellion against the prevalence of mass-produced carbonated beers.
According to Camra, beer should be left to ferment “live” in casks.
Craft beer, by contrast, is often produced in kegs – a technique which makes traditionalists shudder.
It’s a reaction that enthusiasts for the new wave of American-inspired beers are happy to provoke. Indeed, they are often keen to dissociate themselves from Camra’s beard-and-cardigan image.
This is well and good. Certainly, craft beers have raised the quality of American brews. But I have to agree with the purists in decrying the contamination of beer with chocolate, chilis, fruits, pumpkin, peanut butter, bacon, and even weirder additives. Am I wrong?